Contrary to popular belief, noise at work doesn’t just affect hearing – it can also put your heart at risk.
A recent study published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine suggests that employees who are exposed to high levels of noise while on the job are more likely to develop high cholesterol and high blood pressure. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), high blood pressure and high cholesterol are major contributors to cardiovascular disease. Excessive noise at work can also lead to disturbed sleep, migraines, and impaired cognitive function.
Noise has been found to induce stress responses in the body, activating the “fight or flight” response. Over time, the repeated release of stress hormones like cortisol can eventually cause damage to blood vessels, leading to a range of cardiovascular issues. Loud noises can also cause oxidative stress and metabolic problems in the body, which can lead to chronic conditions like diabetes.
Researchers at NIOSH analysed data from the 2014 National Health Interview Survey in order to examine links between workplace noise exposure, hearing difficulty, and heart disease across multiple industries. The industry with the highest prevalence of workplace noise exposure was mining, with construction and manufacturing a close second and third.
It was discovered that 25 percent of workers had been exposed to work-related noise, which was an increase of 11 percent compared to the previous year. Researchers also found that 12 percent of employees had difficulties with hearing, 24 percent had high blood pressure, and 28 percent had high cholesterol. These three health issues could all be attributed to exposure to loud noises at work.
This corresponds to a similar study from 2015, published in Occupational Environmental Medicine, which found a link between heart disease and noise at work. Dr Wen Qi Gan, lead author of the study, said that “compared with people with normal high-frequency hearing, people with bilateral high-frequency hearing loss were approximately two times more likely to have coronary heart disease.”
Although the NIOSH study does not completely establish a true cause and effect relationship between overexposure to noise and heart disease, it is clear that safer levels of noise at work could result in fewer cases of associated conditions. Lower noise levels could also prevent “more than 5 million cases of hearing difficulty,” said Elizabeth Masterson, the NIOSH study’s co-author.
Masterson has also noted that “it is important that workers be screened regularly for these conditions in the workplace or through a healthcare provider, so interventions can occur. As these conditions are more common among noise-exposed workers, they could especially benefit from these screenings.” John Howard, the director of NIOSH, has backed up this view, stating that, in his opinion, “worksite health and wellness programs that include screenings for high blood pressure and cholesterol should also target noise-exposed workers.”
Recommendations for employers who want to tackle health issues caused by noise include the use of Personal Protective Equipment, or PPE (such as noise-cancelling headphones and earplugs), replacing noisy machines with quieter models, and the rotation of employees’ duties to minimize time spent doing noisy tasks.